Background: Fall incidence in older adults might be reduced through learning to better recover from or adjust to perturbations. Extents of age-related declines and limitations in the ability to recover are not well established, however.
Methods: Slips were induced, using bilateral low-friction platforms, during a sit-to-stand task in 60 young and 41 older, healthy, safety-harnessed adults. Subjects underwent five slips, a block of nonslipping trials, then two reexposures to the slip. The first slip was novel and unexpected. Age-group and trial effects on fall incidence (evidenced by excessive hip descent) and on the direction of the initial protective step were examined.
Results: More older than young adults fell upon the first slip (73% vs 28%; p <.001). With repeated exposure, fall incidence decreased at similar exponential rates in both age groups. All but one subject eventually learned to slip without falling, and two-thirds of fallers fell only once. Repeat fallers fell without stepping in 63% of falls. Upon later slip reexposure, more older than young adults fell (20% vs 2%), but fewer falls occurred than did originally (p =.001). Likelihoods of forward and backward stepping during successful recovery changed with repeated slip exposure and upon reexposure, but did not differ between age groups.
Conclusions: Older adults are more likely to fall upon initial, unexpected perturbation exposure, but, upon repeated exposure, healthy young and older adults rapidly learn to avoid falling at a similar rate. Healthy older adults appear fully capable of learning to better recover from or adjust to a perturbation through repeated exposure.